The CEO of one of the world’s biggest media companies just said A.I. is making some journalists obsolete as he plans staff cuts

March 1, 2023, 5:23 PM UTC
Mathias Döpfner, CEO of Axel Springer SE, speaks in an interview with journalists from the Deutsche Presse-Agentur.
Kay Nietfeld—picture alliance/Getty Images

It’s starting to look like ChatGPT and its A.I. ilk are going to change digital journalism the way the internet changed the printed newspaper. This week, Mathias Döpfner, the billionaire CEO of German media group Axel Springer—which owns German newspapers Bild and Welt as well as Politico and an 88% stake in Insider, among other properties—said he believes his company’s future lies in A.I. In an internal memo to employees seen by multiple outlets, he announced “significant” job cuts in “production, layout, proofreading, and administration” and warned journalists that the burgeoning tech might take their jobs.

“Artificial intelligence has the potential to make independent journalism better than it ever was—or simply replace it,” he wrote, the Guardian reported Tuesday.

Döpfner argued that A.I. will be able to aggregate information for breaking news stories faster than any human ever could, which will make many journalists’ positions obsolete. The news comes after Buzzfeed announced last month that it plans to begin using A.I. systems to create content including quizzes and short stories for subscribers, causing the company’s beaten-down stock to soar. A.I. has already been used for years in the fastest-moving breaking newsrooms, including both the Bloomberg and Reuters newswires. Döpfner’s memo did not touch on those systems, which do not generate paragraphs of text as ChatGPT does but rather locate and publish financial figures, such as earnings in quarterly reports.

Still, Döpfner explained that he doesn’t believe A.I. will replace the entire profession of journalism, noting that exclusive, quality content “remains irreplaceable and is going to become even more critical to success for publishers” and that journalists will still be needed to help discern the “true motives” of people. The CEO added that investigative journalism, original commentary, and exclusive stories should be the focus of the profession moving forward. 

Despite his warnings about A.I., he clarified that editorial staff are not yet a part of Döpfner’s proposed staff cuts, and he said he is being “guided by a sense of fairness and humanity” as he rightsizes the media company’s workforce for a new era. 

“Understanding this change is essential to a publishing house’s future viability,” he wrote. “Only those who create the best original content will survive.”

The critics and calls for regulation

Nvidia CEO Jensen Huang argued last month that A.I. is at an “inflection point” after the release of OpenAI’s ChatGPT in November of last year. The buzzy new A.I. platform amassed 100 million users in just over two months, leading Microsoft to invest $10 billion in OpenAI and implement its tech into the Bing search engine.

After the move by Microsoft, companies worldwide now have a “a sense of urgency…to develop and deploy A.I. strategies,” according to Huang. And to his point, mentions of the word “A.I.” on corporate earnings calls surged 77% from a year ago this earnings season. 

But critics worry about the dark side of the A.I. revolution. A.I. systems are still far from perfect and have a tendency to simply make stuff up—something researchers have labeled “hallucination”—and we’re already seeing the real-world effects. 

A flood of article submissions created by ChatGPT that were riddled with errors forced the U.S. science fiction magazine Clarkesworld to stop accepting submissions last month; teachers across the country are scrambling to find new ways to detect A.I.-enabled cheating; and A.I.-generated voices have already captured positions from voice actors on YouTube and in some TV shows and movies.

Oh, and Allen & Overy, the seventh-largest law firm in the world, also just hired a new legal clerk, Harvey. He’s an A.I. bot that can help with due diligence, litigation, and compliance, and he’s going to be working in 43 offices simultaneously.

The prospect of job losses for Americans due to A.I. has some politicians, including Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, arguing that the technology should be heavily taxed and regulated. 

“If workers are going to be replaced by robots, as will be the case in many industries, we’re going to need to adapt tax and regulatory policies to assure that the change does not simply become an excuse for race-to-the-bottom profiteering by multinational corporations,” Sanders wrote in his new book It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

Even the creator of OpenAI, Sam Altman, warned last month that A.I. is not far away from “potentially scary” capabilities. Altman worries “how people of the future will view us” if A.I. is allowed to expand unchecked, arguing that regulation “will be critical” as the technology rapidly integrates into society. But he noted that Pandora is already out of the box—the world will have to learn to “co-evolve.”

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